Writing Exercise: “Praise House”

ENG 326 Writing Poetry: Intermediate
University of North Carolina at Greensboro
Fall 2017

Note: My intermediate poetry class is wrapping up workshop on their third poems and they are getting ready to turn in their fourth workshop poems this Saturday. This exercise is meant to allow them time and space to try something new (some have wondered aloud about if there can be “happy” poems) and draft something they can develop into their workshop piece. I always allow my students to revise in-class writing into their workshop poems, as this gives the class (optional) scaffolding of their assignments and helps to alleviate pressure surrounding “writer’s block.” (Side note: I don’t believe in writer’s block, as it often boils down to students second guessing themselves before they even begin, but they believe in it, so I want to help them overcome that fear in whatever way I can.)

 

9/28 Writing Exercise: “Praise House”

  1. Read “Praise House: The New Economy” by Gabrielle Calvocoressi and “To a Fig Tree on 9th and Christian” by Ross Gay.
  2. Freewrite a poem in which you praise a moment or a whole lot of things that you love or for which you are grateful.
    • Note: This exercise introduces you to a new form, the praise poem, while also giving you the option of continuing to cultivate your skills at using a poetic catalog (i.e., a list) in your poems.

Writing Exercise: “99 Problems”

ENG 326 Writing Poetry: Intermediate
University of North Carolina at Greensboro
Fall 2017

Note: My intermediate poetry students completed this exercise at the beginning of class on the third day we discussed There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé by Morgan Parker. Six students shared their work, and some of them framed their poem as “99 Problems” whereas others framed it as a countdown or as a list of tweets experienced on social media. This exercise presented a lot of flexibility, and it allowed students to think about implied narratives rather than explicitly rendered narratives.

9/21 Writing Exercise: “99 Problems”

  1. Let’s spend a little time discussing “99 Problems” on pgs. 66–69 of Morgan Parker’s There Are More Beautiful Things
    1. What is her strategy for moving from one “problem” to the next?
    2. What are your thoughts about the form of the list poem?
  2. Write a list poem. You can either use the “99 Problems” as a frame, or you can write a list poem with some other function.

Writing Exercise: “I Mean…”

ENG 326 Writing Poetry: Intermediate
University of North Carolina at Greensboro
Fall 2017

 

There-Are-More-Beautiful-Things-Than-Beyonce-2ndEdNote: My intermediate poetry students completed this exercise at the beginning of class on the second day we discussed There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé by Morgan Parker. Four students shared their work, and all of them wrote their best poem so far in response to this exercise. These poems were full of such unexpected turns and provocative declarations.

This exercise could easily be adapted for other kinds of classrooms, especially because the poem “Welcome to the Jungle” is available online (linked below), in addition to the book. That being said, I highly recommend the book and all of Parker’s work, and it has been especially popular among my undergraduate students.

9/19 Writing Exercise: “I Mean…”

  1. Let’s read “Welcome to the Jungle” by Morgan Parker and discuss.
    1. What do you notice about the way that this poem is constructed?
    2. What about the grammar (including punctuation)?
    3. How does Parker get from one statement to another? Let’s look at it statement by statement, line by line, paying special attention to the associative leaps between each statement.
  2. Freewrite a poem. Your only three parameters are that 1) you cannot use punctuation and 2) you have to start with a declarative statement that 3) you will later have to requalify (e.g. “With champagne I try expired white ones / I mean pills I mean men” and “had a party had fifty parties”).

Writing Exercise: “In Defense of ‘Moist'”

ENG 326 Writing Poetry: Intermediate
University of North Carolina at Greensboro
Fall 2017

8/15 Writing Exercise: “In Defense of ‘Moist’”

  1. Read the poem “In Defense of ‘Moist’” by Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib and discuss.
  2. Recall your favorite or least favorite word from the Introductions handout. If you selected your favorite word, title your poem “Against ‘[the word]’”; if you selected your least favorite word, title it “In Defense of ‘{the word]’.”
  3. Draft a poem as an argument against your favorite word or for your least favorite word, after Willis-Abdurraqib.
    1. You may write this poem on the back of the Willis-Abdurraqib handout and add it into your writing journal later.
    2. Try not to let your critical, editorial part of your brain enter into the drafting process, as this will only limit you.
    3. Your skill level is irrelevant, as we’re all asked to draft right here, in the moment. We’re all on the same page, in terms of the poem’s parameters, and this ongoing writing and sharing in class will help us all improve, not to mention try something new in our work.
  4. Share with the class and, in doing so, we’ll begin to discover ways we can best provide and receive feedback on poetic works.

Camp ArtWorks Exercises and Lesson Plan

I spent last week teaching at Camp ArtWorks, a writing camp through Elizabethtown College and their Bowers Writers House. Each day I taught four sessions, each with 3–4 participants aged 13–17. For the first two days, we focused on sound in poetry; the next two days, we explored the lyric essay; and, finally, the last day we held a wrap-up and Q&A session that allowed the students to share.

Below, I’ve included the descriptions of each experience and the writing exercises the campers completed under them. My full lesson plan for the week, including the in-class reading list, is available on my teaching drive.

Making Poems Sing
How do poems move? How do they flow? In this class, we’ll learn how to make original poems that, through their rhythm and music, sound great read aloud. Throughout the experience, we’ll use our voices as much as our pens to compose. (No singing talent required.)

Writing Exercise: “Possibilities”

Write an imitation of Szymborska’s poem “Possibilities.” In doing so, try to imitate the structure and form of the poem, retaining the anaphoric construction of “I prefer” throughout your poem, but create your own images and actions that are the objects of the “I prefer” statements.

 

Going over all the fancy words
Students brainstormed about the effects of repeating sounds

Writing Exercise: “Tuning Fork”

Free write four lines on any subject. Your only parameter is that for every noun you use, you must select one that has at least one sound similar to the previous adjective, verb, or noun. This will create a “chain” of similar sounds that allow your poems to sound good read aloud. Let’s look at some examples together:

“The river flows like a bow and arrow, taut / As a tamed tangle”

From Rosal, a similar technique: “I rolled twenty-two deep, every / one of us lulled by a blade / though few of us knew the steel note / that chimed a full measure if you slid / the edge along a round to make it // keen.”

Share your lines with the group, and let’s talk about the effects of your sound chains in relationship to the subject matter and the reader’s perception of the poem’s emotion and tone.

What Has the Head of an Essay, and the Body of a Poem?
The Lyric Essay, that’s what. In this class, we’ll uncover the riddle of this new genre, and we’ll tell our stories through it, borrowing ideas and techniques from personal essays and story-poems. Bring your best stories, and a sense of humor.

Writing Exercise: “Memory2”

Pick a memory that you don’t quite understand or an experience that bothered you in some way. You could have been embarrassed, or you might have been too young to understand the consequences. Share with the class.

Write a paragraph in prose about the memory, as if you were to write a personal essay.

Re-write the memory in poetry. What details get left out? What language arrives? How is the telling different? Do you use any other strategies?

Discuss.

 

Figuring out the lyric essay
Break it down!

Writing Exercise: “Finding a Way In”

Re-examine the memory you chose for the “Memory2” exercise, and create a list of 5–7 objects, details, and images from that memory. For instance, my childhood memory of seeing a man hit a boy in the Target and then witnessing my mother chase the man recalls red, my mother’s purse, the toy aisle, fluorescent lights, the rings on the man’s hand, etc.

Start with the object most distant from the action and event, and describe everything about the object, from its appearance to your vantage upon it, in one paragraph.

Write a single paragraph about each object, working your way toward the action at hand. (For example, I would begin with the color red in the store, then maybe talk about the fluorescent lights, then talk about my mother’s purse that she dropped on the floor, and then describe the man’s rings.) At the end, you should have 5–7 paragraphs and the beginnings of a lyric essay that tells the truth but tells it slant, after Dickinson.

(Note: You may use some of your language from your previous exercise, if it works here.)

Students shared their exercises
Students shared their exercises
Students shared their exercises
Mapping ourselves on the Poetry to Prose spectrum
Mapping ourselves on the Poetry to Prose spectrum

Failed Ideas Rise Again!

I’m compiling a document called “Ignoratio Elenchi” (“missing the point”) with fragments of interesting things that framed failed poems. My hope is that this daisy-chain of failed, poetic dramatic situations will come together as something new, maybe a lyric essay on and demonstrating failure. This project must be something like a grappa, that liquor made from the unwanted skins, seeds, and stems of grapes that would foul wine. Let me go ahead and propose this form: a Grappa, a lyric-prose hybrid that trellises together failed lines, ideas, and dramatic situations. Most of the time my failed poems fail because I have too much of a set idea or firm situation—a boa muscled by truths, intentions. In a new form perhaps, by their prismatic triangulation, they will be elevated beyond their specificity, re-rendered to bewilder.

Presentation & Handouts for Lecture: “It’s Alive: Why Poetry Still Matters”

phillips-rutherford-hall-lecture-11-16-2016On Wednesday, November 16, I gave the lecture “It’s Alive: Why Poetry Still Matters” at Rutherford Hall in Allamuchy, New Jersey. Here are the materials for that talk:

This talk also transformed into my November 2016 blog post for Ploughshares, “Truth & Dread: Why Poetry Still Matters & The Risk of (Too Much) Empathy”:

Can the act of empathy, learned from literature and poetry, become an act of appropriation when we take it to our lived lives? This is a question I haven’t been able to answer. Each of us is not a sun around which others revolve; we cannot, like black holes, pull everything into us without risking erasure, of others, of ourselves. Perhaps more than the practice of empathy, poetry offers us the opportunity to listen, and not just in the way that it appeals to the same areas of the brain music stimulates, and not just in the way that we can hear the cadence and rhythm and sounds of poetry. Perhaps poetry offers us the opportunity to hear its many speakers, to not so much as internalize each of their voices and experiences as to confirm them, to say, you are you, you are a voice, I hear you.